When Scepticism Goes Belly Up

Alchymist

Junior Acolyte
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There was a wonderful article, a classic case of a circular argument, published in the Skeptical Inquirer some years ago - well, actually, a few decades ago - sometime in the 1970s or 80s it would have been, when woolly mammoths still roamed the earth . . . The Skeptical Inquirer is, of course, the monthly magazine published by the old Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, or CSICOP, which later changed its name to the much less interesting Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, or CSI - a move which seemed to me, at the time, a tacit admission that what they were engaged in was no longer either scientific or investigational, if it ever was, and, I thought, something of a COPout . . . .

Anyway, the relevant article - I forget the author's name - - began with the claim that we are so lucky that we live at a time when we know all the laws of physics ( this was pre-dark matter, pre-dark energy, pre-string theory. . . ). It was quite a long article, but the gist of it can be summed up in a kind of question-and-answer format, as follows.

"We are lucky to live at a time when all the laws of physics are known."

"But how can we be sure that we know all the laws of physics?"

"Well, because we can explain all known phenomena"

"But what about phenomena we can't explain, like UFOs or ghosts?

"Well, we know that they aren't real."

"How do we know they aren't real?"

"Because they contravene the known laws of physics."

"But perhaps there are laws of physics we don't know yet?"

"Oh no, we know all the laws of physics."

"So how do we know that we know all the laws of physics?"

"Because we can explain all known phenomena."

. . . . And round, and round, and round . . . .

I wrote to the publishers, pointing this out, but didn't even receive the courtesy of an acknowledgement. I wonder why not . . .
 

Analogue Boy

Bar 6
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One thing I’d like to say. It is assumed that historical evidence is based on witness testament. This mostly comes from early days where there were no opticians and witnesses could have all manner of untreated ocular problems.

Sightings from the past could even be down to something like Charles Bonnet Syndrome.
 

Zeke Newbold

Carbon based biped.
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Maybe there's even a case for a Fortean shorthand expression, "dissecting the platypus" to describe the situation in which a sceptic desperately tries to find a reason to reject good evidence in order to maintain their previous position on the subject.

Absolutely! Let's give it a whirl:
However we really must be careful when examining the evidence for life outside of Earth. The Viking experiments may have detected signs of life, but there are numerous possible ways that this result could have been a false positive, so it is quite premature to declare that this has been proved. The case for the ALH 84001 meteorite fossils is even more shaky- if these fossils are evidence of lifeforms, they are much, much smaller than any currently known microbes, so we have to postulate a completely novel type of organism which does not occur on Earth, and which has left fossils that are unlike any found on this planet.

Oy, Ebaracum, mate! Stop dissecting the platypus! We all know that you have to be cautious in these matters. But all that you are doing here is restating the positions that the Schultz-Makuch/Darling booked set out to critique - you are not responding tp the counter-arguments responding to them which are laid out in that book.


Here is one example I know a little about: spoonbending. Briefly:

Belief: Uri Geller claimed and apparently demonstrated bending metal by psychic means. He never, to my knowledge, admitted cheating on even one occasion.

Sceptic counter-belief: James Randi claimed and apparently demonstrated Geller was cheating and never bent metal by psychic means. If I recall correctly, Randi demonstrated this by bending a spoon through mechanical manipulation as a stage magician.

Pesky, unwanted facts for both believers and sceptics:

Great Stuff Amazed. I'd love to know more - and this is very much in the spirit of what I had in mind on starting this thread!

It may interest you to know that I began a thread on here - maybe a year and a half ago - in which I recalled (in my childhood) a boy actually bending a spoon in the style of Geller! The event took place (or did it?) whan Geller was on TV - and so al the kids at my school were tryingto bend cutlery in the manner that he seemed to do. Of course, none of us could... except that I remember one kid actually doing it- and showing it to a teacher.

False memory ?- I don't know, but we've chewed that one over before now.


This has been my view. And it still doesn't sit well with "Skeptics". Once I gave a talk to the National Capital Area Skeptics on my book Scientifical Americans that examines how paranormal researchers say they use science. The goal was to show that they admire science but, like the general population, they have no idea what it means. My work was about science literacy and public understanding. At the end, one acquaintance (very active skeptic) said "Good talk, but I don't know how you can stand to read about Bigfoot and ghost hunters, it's all so fake". He could not get past his deep bias to see the point.

It's the kind of disdainful sanctimony implied in that throwaway line that does so much to alienate people from the `scientific community`. If I wanted to be pompous I could say that `most people in the general population have no idea what language teaching is all about`. It does feel this way to me sometimes, but it is not completely true. A lot of people have had some experience of trying to teach their language to a foreigner, a lot of people are, or have been, teachers in another sphere, a lot of people have had experience of trying to learn a language themselves.... and so on.

Likewise, most people in the`general population` (unwashed or otherwise) do know some science. I would say that most of use use the scientific method - experimenting and making deductions - in our everyday lives.

Take Reg Cupperthwaite, 42, from Billinge. He works as a plumber and has an implacable belief in things demonic.. Bit of a dumbo, then eh? And yet, in his day-to-day working life he is constantly making hypothesis's about the best way to unblock drains or prevent excess spillage and testing these hypothesis's through experimentation - and having to reject long-held assumptions. Quite the scientist. Perhaps he just needs someome to encourage him to apply the same kind of approach to the world of demonology, that's all. Coming onto him like some sort of secular priesthood won't help matters at all.
 

eburacum

Papo-furado
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...you are not responding to the counter-arguments responding to them which are laid out in that book.
Schultz-Makuch and Darling are both suitably skeptical, and are simply arguing that the evidence we have is intriguing. This is not really a controversial position, and many or most scientists at NASA would agree with them - that's why Perseverance has several life-detecting experiments on board. But even if Perseverance finds life, this would not automatically validate the Viking experiments or the Allan Hills fossils.

The presence of perchlorates on the surface may rule out the sort of life we are familiar with, but since a significant fraction of these toxic chemicals also contain vital nitrogen in the form of ammonia, this may actually make some sort of (albeit unfamiliar and non-Earth-like) life more likely.
 

Sharon Hill

Complicated biological machine
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nate people from the `scientific community`. If I wanted to be pompous I could say that `most people in the general population have no idea what language teaching is all about`. It does feel this way to me sometimes, but it is not completely true. A lot of people have had some experience of trying to teach their language to a foreigner, a lot of people are, or have been, teachers in another sphere, a lot of people have had experience of trying to learn a language themselves.... and so on.

Likewise, most people in the`general population` (unwashed or otherwise) do know some science. I would say that most of use use the scientific method - experimenting and making deductions - in our everyday lives.

Take Reg Cupperthwaite, 42, from Billinge. He works as a plumber and has an implacable belief in things demonic.. Bit of a dumbo, then eh? And yet, in his day-to-day working life he is constantly making hypothesis's about the best way to unblock drains or prevent excess spillage and testing these hypothesis's through experimentation - and having to reject long-held assumptions. Quite the scientist. Perhaps he just needs someome to encourage him to apply the same kind of approach to the world of demonology, that's all. Coming onto him like some sort of secular priesthood won't help matters at all.

Admiring the social cache of science but not knowing how to do it is a conclusion derived from the evidence. That isn't pompous, it's factual. Sorry if it rubs you the wrong way, but it doesn't make it untrue. I don't follow your plumber story so that's not a good analogy.

The scientific method is not the simple cookbook thing you depict. What's the basis to say "most people... know some science"? I would dispute this entirely. Even graduates in a scientific field didn't get a class on research methods unless they go to grad school. Mostly, people know what they think is science from what they gathered through the media. This is not my idea or an assumption, there is considerable evidence accumulated in the field of science communication and sci literacy. What I have seen is an awful lot of Dunning-Kruger syndrome from people who assert they "know the science".

How many people go into other's homes and claim they are going to use scientific equipment and methods to investigate a paranormal claim? Lots. What is pompous is how many amateur paranormal researchers who have zero instruction on how to do valid research are claiming they are doing "cutting edge science" with their blinky gadgets. What they do is more akin to live action role-playing of a scientist. How would you feel if a doctor or dentist with a fake degree treated you? Would you want an electrician that isn't licensed/certified to rewire your house? Would you not take a child to the doctor for a broken bone and instead let the well-meaning Mom take care of him? It's a bad thing when valid expertise is hardly valued anymore. Now, anyone who googles anything can call themselves an "expert" and all too many people think that kind of expertise is good enough. Real science is hard, that's why not that many people become actual scientists.
 

Cochise

Priest of the cult of the Dog with the Broken Paw
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There was a wonderful article, a classic case of a circular argument, published in the Skeptical Inquirer some years ago - well, actually, a few decades ago - sometime in the 1970s or 80s it would have been, when woolly mammoths still roamed the earth . . . The Skeptical Inquirer is, of course, the monthly magazine published by the old Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, or CSICOP, which later changed its name to the much less interesting Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, or CSI - a move which seemed to me, at the time, a tacit admission that what they were engaged in was no longer either scientific or investigational, if it ever was, and, I thought, something of a COPout . . . .

Anyway, the relevant article - I forget the author's name - - began with the claim that we are so lucky that we live at a time when we know all the laws of physics ( this was pre-dark matter, pre-dark energy, pre-string theory. . . ). It was quite a long article, but the gist of it can be summed up in a kind of question-and-answer format, as follows.

"We are lucky to live at a time when all the laws of physics are known."

"But how can we be sure that we know all the laws of physics?"

"Well, because we can explain all known phenomena"

"But what about phenomena we can't explain, like UFOs or ghosts?

"Well, we know that they aren't real."

"How do we know they aren't real?"

"Because they contravene the known laws of physics."

"But perhaps there are laws of physics we don't know yet?"

"Oh no, we know all the laws of physics."

"So how do we know that we know all the laws of physics?"

"Because we can explain all known phenomena."

. . . . And round, and round, and round . . . .

I wrote to the publishers, pointing this out, but didn't even receive the courtesy of an acknowledgement. I wonder why not . . .
You see, if I was a physicist I'd be really interested in unexplained phenomena in case explaining one of them made me famous. Oh, and incidentally added a new Law of Physics :)

Edit; Reminds me of a late night argument I used to have with an old friend of mine who argued for a finite universe.
'So what's outside it then'
'Nothing'
'So how do you know you've reached the edge, since space is basically nothing?'
'It's a closed loop'
'So what's outside it then'
'Nothing'
'How would you know if you can't go outside it'?'
Etc. etc.
 
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Mikefule

Abominable Snowman
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Admiring the social cache of science but not knowing how to do it is a conclusion derived from the evidence. That isn't pompous, it's factual. ...

Now, anyone who googles anything can call themselves an "expert" and all too many people think that kind of expertise is good enough. Real science is hard, that's why not that many people become actual scientists.

I broadly agree with the first of the two snips above, and this isn't just limited to "science" but also to medicine, religion, statistics, and many areas of human endeavour.

In the particular case of science, there is widespread misunderstanding of the difference between "science" meaning "theories supported by mainstream science"; "science" as a methodical approach to inquiry; "science" as a community with its own rules about peer review, publication and replication; and "science" as a synonym for "technology".

There are no doubt other meanings, but these four are certainly in common use.

A person can have little or no concept of "scientific method" and no understanding of the normal operation of the "scientific community" but have a genuine feeling of respect for "science" in one of the other senses. Indeed, this is how shampoo adverts work.

If a person takes this attitude into investigating anomalous phenomena, they may make a number of basic mistakes but sincerely believe that what they are doing is somehow "scientific" or that their "theories" are "supported by science".

Science is one of many subjects that are badly taught at introductory level. As you advance to A level (UK qualification) or similar, you start to be given some sort of understanding of the philosophy and method, but even then without a good grasp of maths and statistics, you may think you understand more than you do. Sometimes a little knowledge really can be a dangerous thing.


On the second "snip" I quoted above: the Covid/vaccine thing has illustrated this to a depressing degree. There are so many experts all over Facebook, most of whom are doing little more than parroting headlines designed to appeal to a partisan readership.
 

gordonrutter

Within reason
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In relation to all of the above I do find that the more vocal members of the U.K. skeptical community are rabbiting on about science this and science that but they are very themselves not scientifically trained in any form. As mentioned, definite Dunning Kruger effect and as they tend to shout the loudest they are the ones people hear about further diluting general science knowledge.
 

Endlessly Amazed

Endlessly, you know, amazed
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@SharonHill states: “…how paranormal researchers say they use science. The goal was to show that they admire science but, like the general population, they have no idea what it means.”

Sharon Hill, I have not read your book, and perhaps other FBM members have not as well. Perhaps my question is answered in it. But for all of us here, could you please give more details about who, exactly, is represented in your category of uneducated “paranormal researchers”?

Is it all of them? Most of them? Some of them? The most popularly known from media? Are they the authors who publish in the UK Society for Psychical Research? The American Society for Psychical Research? Does it include Ian Stevenson, late founder of the University of Virginia’s Division of Perceptual Studies? Does it include these people, who have documented involvement in psychic research and who drew the conclusion that there is something not conventionally explained: Sir William Crookes, Sir Charles Richet, Madame Curie?

The details matter greatly. In the absence of these details, your comment comes across as applying to ALL paranormal researchers. Not just generally, but specifically and completely encompassing ALL paranormal researchers. As such, it seems to be a short cut to dismissing a large and diverse group of people with a wide range of opinions.

Please help us understand your position better.
 

Analogue Boy

Bar 6
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@SharonHill states: “…how paranormal researchers say they use science. The goal was to show that they admire science but, like the general population, they have no idea what it means.”

Sharon Hill, I have not read your book, and perhaps other FBM members have not as well. Perhaps my question is answered in it. But for all of us here, could you please give more details about who, exactly, is represented in your category of uneducated “paranormal researchers”?

Is it all of them? Most of them? Some of them? The most popularly known from media? Are they the authors who publish in the UK Society for Psychical Research? The American Society for Psychical Research? Does it include Ian Stevenson, late founder of the University of Virginia’s Division of Perceptual Studies? Does it include these people, who have documented involvement in psychic research and who drew the conclusion that there is something not conventionally explained: Sir William Crookes, Sir Charles Richet, Madame Curie?

The details matter greatly. In the absence of these details, your comment comes across as applying to ALL paranormal researchers. Not just generally, but specifically and completely encompassing ALL paranormal researchers. As such, it seems to be a short cut to dismissing a large and diverse group of people with a wide range of opinions.

Please help us understand your position better.

Let’s roll back a bit. Would you say there first has to be conclusive evidence or proof of a phenomena before you decide how you’re going to record it and take the inside leg measurements? At the moment there is still very little proof and a lot of the modern equipment used in an attempt to record the phenomena... like game console cameras and skwawky audio boxes are unfit for purpose in an amateur situation, let alone as scientific research. If most paranormal researchers are using basic equipment that is often unfit for purpose in its intended application, further dramatising the findings (see Orbs and camera straps in the frame) can seem to amount to sensationalism, or at least wishful thinking. Add a financial or monetary incentive to the broadcasting of the footage gleaned and there’s a whole lot more to consider. So Sharon’s observations are probably correct.
At least ALL the programmes you see on the TV are labelled as ‘for entertainment purpose only’ by their own admission. They need a narrative and the skwawky boxes and whatever shit they buy off amazon and use incorrectly only muddies the water.
In most cases, you have to take the word of the ‘sensitive’ person feeding them information in the first place. Inconveniently, you’d also have to prove people can communicate with the dead as well as prove their manifestation. This goes largely unchallenged as they jump scare their way around the investigation and isn’t it odd how things reach a climax towards the end of the investigation? Eh? Just a little bit odd?
 
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Endlessly Amazed

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Let’s roll back a bit. Would you say there first has to be conclusive evidence or proof of a phenomena before you decide how you’re going to record it and take the inside leg measurements? At the moment there is still very little proof and a lot of the modern equipment used in an attempt to record the phenomena... like game console cameras and skwawky audio boxes are unfit for purpose in an amateur situation, let alone as scientific research. If most paranormal researchers are using basic equipment that is often unfit for purpose in its intended application, further dramatising the findings (see Orbs and camera straps in the frame) can seem to amount to sensationalism, or at least wishful thinking. Add a financial or monetary incentive to the broadcasting of the footage gleaned and there’s a whole lot more to consider. So Sharon’s observations are probably correct.
At least ALL the programmes you see on the TV are labelled as ‘for entertainment purpose only’ by their own admission. They need a narrative and the skwawky boxes and whatever shit they buy off amazon and use incorrectly only muddies the water.
In most cases, you have to take the word of the ‘sensitive’ person feeding them information in the first place. Inconveniently, you’d also have to prove people can communicate with the dead as well as prove their manifestation. This goes largely unchallenged as they jump scare their way around the investigation and isn’t it odd how things reach a climax towards the end of the investigation? Eh? Just a little bit odd?
@Analogue Boy: I will wait for Sharon Hill to specify which component of paranormal researchers she is referring to. “Paranormal researchers” seems global to me.

I have never seen an entire television show on ghosts, orbs, etc., and so am pretty ignorant about them. The little I have watched seemed like silly bullshit to me, and so I never watched a complete episode. Whom are you referring to as “most paranormal researchers”?

Edit: OK, I just watched two you tube shows on ghost hunters; and it was painful. Are THESE the "paranormal researchers" @Sharon Hill and @Analogue Boy are referring to? If so, I think presenting these types of amateur infotainment/researchers as actual paranormal researchers is a type of straw man argument.
 
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Endlessly Amazed

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Morgellons Disease
Here is a topic currently in transition to wider acceptance as an actual physical condition, but I’m not sure it is Fortean. It is a skin disease which has a pathogenic cause, and the sufferers are not delusional. I am curious about why the Wikipedia entry has not been updated. I suspect that it has to do with the assumption set regarding alternative medicine, nd that the Wiki editors would have to acknowledge that the disease actually exists.

Sceptical belief (assumption based on early limited facts and assignment to a more widely found set of delusions):
Morgellons - Wikipedia -where it is part of a series on “Alternative medicine.”
People who have these symptoms are suffering from a delusion. Note: this Wiki comment has not been updated to reflect more recent research and conclusions published in 2016.

Counter belief (assumption based on more and different facts), based on spirochete culture stain and detailed analysis of the fibers.
Morgellons disease: a filamentous borrelial dermatitis (nih.gov)
“Morgellons disease (MD) is a dermopathy characterized by multicolored filaments that lie under, are embedded in, or project from skin. Although MD was initially considered to be a delusional disorder, recent studies have demonstrated that the dermopathy is associated with tickborne infection, that the filaments are composed of keratin and collagen, and that they result from proliferation of keratinocytes and fibroblasts in epithelial tissue.”
 

Nosmo King

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Morgellons Disease
Here is a topic currently in transition to wider acceptance as an actual physical condition, but I’m not sure it is Fortean. It is a skin disease which has a pathogenic cause, and the sufferers are not delusional. I am curious about why the Wikipedia entry has not been updated. I suspect that it has to do with the assumption set regarding alternative medicine, nd that the Wiki editors would have to acknowledge that the disease actually exists.

Sceptical belief (assumption based on early limited facts and assignment to a more widely found set of delusions):
Morgellons - Wikipedia -where it is part of a series on “Alternative medicine.”
People who have these symptoms are suffering from a delusion. Note: this Wiki comment has not been updated to reflect more recent research and conclusions published in 2016.

Counter belief (assumption based on more and different facts), based on spirochete culture stain and detailed analysis of the fibers.
Morgellons disease: a filamentous borrelial dermatitis (nih.gov)
“Morgellons disease (MD) is a dermopathy characterized by multicolored filaments that lie under, are embedded in, or project from skin. Although MD was initially considered to be a delusional disorder, recent studies have demonstrated that the dermopathy is associated with tickborne infection, that the filaments are composed of keratin and collagen, and that they result from proliferation of keratinocytes and fibroblasts in epithelial tissue.”
You should update the wiki you have the right info :)
 

eburacum

Papo-furado
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Many, many people have tried to update the Morgellons article with the Middlelveen study. They have all been rejected for reasons that are discussed in the Talk:Archive.
see here, for example.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:Morgellons/Archive_9
It seems there are a lot of people with axes to grind in this field. I doubt that another editor will make any detectable difference at this stage.
 

Sharon Hill

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I studied amateur research and investigation groups in the US. I surveyed over 1000 websites to see if they used the word "science" or said they used "scientific methods" and then looked at their content to see how it reflected that. These were mostly "ghost hunters" - very heavily influenced by television - but also ufologists (mainly MUFON that takes local groups under one umbrella), and cryptozoology groups (mostly Bigfoot but apparently all weird animal sightings are equivalent). The study is a bit dated now as these groups have lost some popularity (their grand plans to be THE ones to "prove" ghosts or bigfoot didn't happen) or some really did move to ask a local university prof to help them design actual long-term experiments, which is pretty cool.

Plenty of clips from the book here. https://sharonahill.com/scientifical-americans/. No one had done an extensive, systematic study this large before or since.
A PDF of my master thesis is also available along with popular articles and other things in my bio here. https://sharonahill.com/bio/

And, for those who aren't familiar with my past, I used to be a scientific consultant for CSI/CSICOP, I worked for JREF, and I was on the board of more than one skeptics' organization, but I eventually got so disgusted with the skeptical community, I cut ties with all orgs. There is MUCH merit in the idea that skeptics can be annoying know-it-alls. But the process of applying skepticism is still important and valid. I think I can fairly say that I can see all sides - as a believer, skeptic, and scientist.
 
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